George Echu (Yaounde, Cameroon/Bloomington, USA)
Coping With Multilingualism: Trends in the Evolution of Language Policy in Cameroon<!Titelende//-->
Coping With Multilingualism: Trends in the Evolution of Language Policy in Cameroon
1 IntroductionWith a population of 15,803,220 inhabitants and a surface area of 475,442 km2, Cameroon is a highly dense multilingual African country having 247 indigenous languages, two official languages (English and French) and a lingua franca (Cameroon Pidgin English). In addition, some foreign languages like Spanish and German are very present in the school system, while Arabic is the language of Islam.
During the colonial period, language policy put in place by the Germans (18841916), the British and the French (19161960) tended to promote the languages of the colonizers to the detriment of indigenous languages. The latter suffered severe linguistic persecution, as the various colonial administrators sought to eradicate them from the school system. At independence, one should have expected a complete change in tide with the change in power structure. Unfortunately, foreign languages are still largely dominant while indigenous languages are relegated to the background. In addition to the policy of official language bilingualism which seeks to promote the use of English and French nationwide, Spanish and German equally occupy an important place in the school system. Unfortunately enough, neither Cameroonian indigenous languages nor Arabic are finding their way into the public school syllabus, let alone tolerated in official circles.
Thus, in spite of the timid efforts made in the standardization of the alphabetical system of Cameroonian indigenous languages, as well as the translation of the Bible into some indigenous languages, the absence of a clearly defined language policy in Cameroon constitutes a major handicap to the development of these languages. Such a situation calls for a major revolution in the conception and implementation of a language policy that will take into cognizance the place of indigenous languages within the Cameroonian society, while at the same time promoting the two official languages.
2 Background to Study
With an estimated population of 15,803,220 inhabitants as of July 2001 (cf. CIA World Fact Book) and a surface area of 475,442 km2, Cameroon is bounded to the west by Nigeria, to the northeast by Chad, to the east by Central African Republic and to the south by Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo. There are ten administrative regions or provinces, two of which are English-speaking and eight French-speaking.
A former German colony (18841916), Cameroon was divided between Britain and France following the defeat of Germany in 1916 during the First World War. Britain got two discontinuous strips of land of about 90,000 km2 along the Nigerian border: the strip to the north was called "Northern British Cameroons" and that to the south was called "Southern British Cameroons". The French got the lion’s share and administered it as an independent territory, whereas the British administered theirs from Lagos in Nigeria. Thus both France and Britain administered this territory first under the League of Nations mandate (19191940) and later under the United Nations trusteeship (19401960). On 1 January 1960, French Cameroon became independent. Then on 11 February 1960, British Southern Cameroons voted union with French Cameroon through a referendum. This association was consolidated on 1 October 1961 through the Reunification of Cameroon and creation of a federation made up of two states called West Cameroon and East Cameroon. The federation survived till 20 May 1972 when it was succeeded by a unitary State made up of seven provinces, and then ten provinces as from 1984.
In the area of education, two subsystems exist in Cameroon: the Anglophone subsystem of education based on the Anglo-Saxon model and the Francophone subsystem based on the French model. Although the two are used side by side, a bilingual system of education is also operational at the university level where studies are carried out in both English and French. According to 1995 estimates, the literacy rate is evaluated at 63.4 % of the total population, 75 % for male and 52.01 % for female (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1995).
3 Multilingualism in Cameroon
Although Ethnologue (2002) puts the number of indigenous languages for Cameroon at 279, these figures are challenged for not being an accurate reflection of the current language situation, more so since varieties of the same language are sometimes considered as different languages (Wolf 2001). This explains why we are more comfortable with the 247 languages advanced by earlier researchers as indicated above. Among these indigenous languages, four are on the verge of extinction; they are Duli, Gey, Nagumi and Yeni, all from the northern part of the country (Boum Ndongo-Semengue and Sadembouo 1999). It is also worth noting that of the four major language families of Africa, three are represented in Cameroon. They are the Afro-Asiatic, the Nilo-Saharan and the Niger Kordofanian. The Niger-Kordofanian family is the most highly represented, while the Khoisan family is not represented at all.
The languages of wider communication are Fulfulde, Ewondo, Basaa, Duala, Hausa, Wandala, Kanuri, Arab Choa, Cameroon Pidgin English (Breton and Fohtung 1991: 20) and French. In all, three lingua franca zones can be identified: the Fulfulde lingua franca zone in the north, the Pidgin English lingua franca zone in the west and the French lingua franca zone in the rest of the country (Wolf 2001: 155). Such a division should not be considered to be rigid, given the overlapping observable in terms of language use.
The Fulfulde lingua franca zone, which covers the Adamawa, the North and the Far North provinces, constitutes 162,107km2 or 34.8 % of the total area of Cameroon. In terms of demographic strength, Fulfulde is spoken by close to 3 million people as a second language, although native speakers of the language are evaluated at more than 350,000 speakers. As far back as the 17th century it served as the language of Islam in the north of the country.
Cameroon Pidgin English (CPE) is widely used not only in the North-West and South-West provinces, but also in the Littoral and West provinces. Presently, its influence is felt in several major towns and cities of the Francophone provinces. In short, CPE is not just a lingua franca of the English-speaking population, but a language that has a national dimension. In urban as well as rural areas, CPE is used in churches, in market places, in motor parks, in railway stations, in the street, as well as in other informal situations. In fact this 'no man's language' is very present in the daily socio-economic lives of the people, a role it began to play as far back as the German colonial period.
As for French, its role as a language of wider communication is traced to the post-independence period, following its gradual but massive acquisition by Cameroonians. Thus apart from the three northern provinces (where Fulfulde thrives as a lingua franca) and the two English-speaking provinces (where Pidgin English is the de facto lingua franca), French plays this role in the rest of the other five Francophone provinces. In this regard, a variety of popular French has come to be used in informal contexts among heterogeneous ethnic groups, especially in urban and semi-urban areas. In all, French as a language of wider communication is used nationwide between Anglophones and Francophones, Fulfuldophones and Francophones (who do not understand Fulfulde), and among Francophones who do not share a common indigenous language.
According to findings of a study carried out by Tchoungui (1983) in some major Francophone urban centers, at least 95 % of children attending school speak French. As for children who do not attend school, 50 % speak French. These statistics confirm the place of French as a major language of wider communication in French-speaking Cameroon.
The two official languages, English and French, came into the Cameroonian scene in 1916 when Britain and France took over Cameroon from the Germans. The new colonial masters then sought to impose their languages in the newly acquired territory both in the areas of education and administration. This led to the solid implantation of the two languages during the colonial era; a situation that was reinforced after Cameroon became independent. At Reunification in 1961, English and French became the two official languages of Cameroon as the country opted for the policy of official language bilingualism.
As already mentioned above, several foreign languages are present on Cameroonian soil. This is the case of Spanish and German, which are officially promoted foreign languages taught in Francophone secondary schools and in some state Universities and thus promoted nationwide. The same is true of Latin, which is taught in Catholic seminaries; and Arabic, which is widely used as the language of Islam not only in North Cameroon but also in other parts of the country.
4 Overview of Language Policy
It is important to note that during the pre-colonial period some indigenous languages had already gained a considerable degree of prestige. This is true of Fulfulde, which had been used for the dissemination of Islam in the three Northern provinces as far back as the 17th century.
4.1 Language Policy during the German Colonial Era
During the German colonial era, the colonial administration (18841916) encouraged the use of German, although German Missionaries and American Presbyterian Missionaries preferred indigenous languages like Basaa, Bulu, Duala, Ewondo and Mungaka for teaching and evangelisation (Mbuagbaw 2000: 135). In spite of the undeveloped nature of the German public school system in Cameroon, the colonialists nonetheless tried to impose the use of German in schools by exerting constant pressure on the missionaries. In 1897, for example, Governor von Puttkammer ordered the missionaries to use German in schools instead of indigenous languages. However, throughout the German colonial period, indigenous languages continued to enjoy a somewhat comfortable position as far as linguistic communication is concerned. Sultan Njoya of Bamun even invented the Bamun writing system in 1896 and opened schools in which this language was used as a medium of instruction.
Bitja'a Kody (1998: 108) holds that if some detractors have described the German language policy in Cameroon as a failure, it is because of the relatively short period during which the Germans were masters of the destiny of the colony. In his opinion, the Germans needed at least 25 years to put their language policy in place. This point of view unfortunately fails to take cognisance of the fact that the German colonial era effectively covered a period of 32 years (18841916), a period sufficiently long to put in place and implement a dynamic language policy capable of transforming the linguistic landscape. In reality, the Germans lacked the vision necessary to conceive and implement a language policy that could guarantee the hegemony of the German language, while giving the indigenous languages their due place in the Cameroonian society.
4.2 French Colonial Language Policy
The language situation in French-speaking Cameroon during the colonial period was characterised by perpetual language conflict between missionaries who persisted in the use of indigenous languages and the French colonial administration (cf. Stumpf 1979, Bitja'a Kody 1999). The latter took a series of measures aimed at promoting French, while at the same time relegating indigenous languages to the background. In 1917, the French colonial administration instituted a special subvention for schools that used French as the language of instruction. Eventually, schools that taught in indigenous languages were closed down as expressed in decisions rendered public on 1 October 1920 and 28 December 1920 whereby the 47 schools opened by Sultan Njoya in the Bamun region were all closed down and his printing press destroyed. As from 1922, a total of 1,800 schools run by the American Presbyterian missionaries, and in which Bulu was the language of instruction suffered the same fate. This systematic linguistic persecution (cf. Stumpf 1979) was carried out with vigour, until French became the sole language in use for education. If the French language policy succeeded, it is probably because the French colonial administration assumed exclusive responsibility for the education of its African subjects (Bokamba 1991: 183), an effective means through which the policy of assimilation was implemented.
4.3 Language Policy in British Cameroon
The British practised the policy of Indirect Rule whereby the use of indigenous languages was almost an imperative since British administrators governed through traditional authorities. In the territory under British mandate, some indigenous languages like Bafut, Duala, Kenyang and Mungaka were used alongside with English in schools (Bitja'a Kody 1999: 82). Todd (1983: 163) maintains that in the British system of education as practiced in Cameroon, indigenous languages were employed as languages of instruction during the first four years of primary education, while English was used during the last four years. In spite of this laisser-faire attitude, vernacular education declined throughout the period of British rule. In 1927, for example, there were 299 vernacular schools teaching 7,155 children, but by 1959 the number had fallen to 6, and the number of children being educated in this way to 191 (Todd 1982: 10).
In other words, by 1959, 99 % of children receiving primary education in English-speaking Cameroon were taught through the medium of English. Of course this is not surprising given that on 27 September 1958 a ministerial decree was issued by the autonomous government of Southern Cameroons instituting English as the sole language of instruction in Anglophone primary schools: "English is to be the medium of instruction in primary schools and all the textbooks used are to be in English" (Todd 1983: 167). Ironically, it is not the British colonial masters who completely jettisoned the indigenous languages from the school system but Cameroonian political authorities.
Thus language policies put in place by the Germans, the British and the French did in no way favour the emergence of an indigenous language that could easily serve as a national or official language at independence.
4.4 Language Policy since Independence
When Cameroon became independent, French was proclaimed the official language in French-speaking Cameroon while English assumed the same status in the English-speaking sector. At reunification on 1 October 1961, official bilingualism was instituted in the new federal republic. Cameroon, like many other former African colonies, naturally opted for the 'neutral' foreign language option as official language in order to avoid language conflict arising from the choice of an indigenous language(s) on the one hand and unwarranted financial and material cost on the other. The new federal Constitution of 1961 clearly spelt out this official bilingualism option advocated for by the government.
As for the indigenous languages, they virtually had no place in the early years of the post-independence era. In fact, all that was done in their favor came from the initiatives of public and private organizations such as the University of Yaounde, the Institute of Social Sciences, SIL-Cameroon, Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy (CABTAL), and National Association of Cameroonian Language Committees (NACALCO).
PROPELCA (Operational Research Program for Language Teaching in Cameroon), in collaboration with the University of Yaounde and the Institute of Social Sciences, has been active since 1977 in the area of the unification and harmonization of language teaching in Cameroon, be it in connection with official languages, national languages or foreign languages. The PROPELCA project centres around what Tadadjeu (1975) refers to as "extensive trilingualism", a language model which dwells on the development of all major languages (more than 100,000 speakers), medium languages (having between 50,000 and 99,000 speakers) and peripheral languages (less than 10,000 speakers) (see Gfeller 2000: 134). Thanks to the work of PROPELCA, the writing system of Cameroonian languages was harmonised in March 1979, a factor that has contributed immensely to the standardisation of some indigenous languages.
Another important project is the ALCAM (Linguistic Atlas of Cameroon). Initiated in the mid 70s, its objective was to establish a repertoire of Cameroonian indigenous languages with special focus on their linguistic geography, native speakers and descriptive study. This project was headed by Maurice Tadadjeu of the University of Yaounde and carried out in collaboration with the DGRST (General Delegation for Scientific and Technical Research), the national research institute. Its findings have been instrumental in identifying Cameroonian indigenous languages.
The National Association of Cameroonian Language Committees (NACALCO), created in 1989, is made up of all the local language development committees. As the successor of PROPELCA, NACALCO is a legal framework that serves as a supervisory body to local committees in the development and promotion of indigenous languages. Other actors include SIL-Cameroon and CABTAL. SIL-Cameroon is a branch of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, which works under a cooperative agreement signed with ONAREST (National Office for Scientific and Technical Research) in April 1975. Its work which focuses on indigenous language research as well as on the development and elaboration of their linguistic systems (grammar, phonology, etc) is carried out in connection with local language study committees, especially in the area of producing reading and writing books, primers, and post primer reading materials. CABTAL dwells exclusively on the translation of the Bible into various indigenous languages. There is no doubt that through the action of these private foreign funded organizations, literacy programs in the national languages are facilitated.
It would be an oversight if we fail to make mention of efforts made in the area of the teaching of indigenous languages. In 1966, College Libermann, a secondary school in Douala, embarked on the teaching of indigenous languages. This private initiative was followed by other mission Catholic secondary schools such as Chevreuil, Retraite, Mimetala and Le Sillon. For instance, while Duala and Basaa were taught by College Libermann in Douala, Ewondo was taught by College de la Retraite in Yaounde. Furthermore, from 1970 to 1977, Duala, Basaa, Ewondo, Bulu, Fulfulde and Fe'fe' were taught in the Department of African Languages and Linguistics of the University of Yaounde. This laudable initiative was suppressed for fear that those Cameroonians whose languages were not chosen for teaching at the university will revolt (Chumbow 1996: 78). And in order to put an end to issues of precedence in terms of which language(s) is more important than the other(s) and thus give the impression that they are equal in status, it was unanimously recommended that the term 'national language' be used henceforth to refer to all Cameroonian vernacular languages. This decision was taken during the inaugural meeting of the National Council for Cultural Affairs in Yaounde from 18 to 22 December 1974.
Some recent developments in language policy are equally worth noting. In 1995, the Etats Généraux de l'Education (General Conference on Education), which brought together school authorities from the public and private sectors, as well as educational experts in Cameroon, strongly recommended the teaching of national languages in schools.
Their decision was probably a booster to the revised Constitution of 18 January 1996 that guarantees the pursuit of the policy of official bilingualism on the one hand and the promotion and protection of national languages on the other. Another important development is that in 1998, the parliament passed a bill on the general orientation of education in Cameroon with special emphasis on the teaching of national languages, a bill that was subsequently promulgated into law Nº 004 of April 1998 by the Head of State (Mba and Chiatoh 2000: 5). At present, the Ministry of National Education is yet to outline the practical modalities for the application of this law.
Globally speaking, the linguistic scenario in Cameroon like in most Sub-Saharan African countries is characterized by dense multilingualism; the official dominance of ex-colonial languages; the official neglect of indigenous languages; the unsevered colonial umbilical cord; and socio-politically interwoven language-related problems (Adegbija 2000: 80f.).
5 Critique of Language Policy
The question as to whether Cameroon can really boast of a language policy remains problematic. Some researchers believe that Cameroon has no clearly defined language policy. Tchoungui (1982: 791) is extremely vocal in this regard when she posits: "although Cameroon professes to be bilingual, it has no language policy". This overstatement is probably due to the absence of a strong institutional framework as concerns the implementation of the policy of official language bilingualism and the lack of clear-cut objectives as regards the promotion of indigenous languages.
5.1 Implementation of the Policy of Official Bilingualism
As earlier observed, the policy of official language bilingualism constitutes the main core of Cameroon's language policy. Article 1, paragraph 3 of the Constitution of 18 January 1996 is abundantly clear in this regard:
Although successive Constitutions of the country since independence (1961, 1972, 1984 and 1996) have always reiterated the policy of official bilingualism, there exists no well-defined language policy till date as to its conception and implementation. Chumbow (1980: 297) is certainly of this opinion when he asserts that "there has been no clear knowledge of the destination of English-French bilingualism in Cameroon and consequently no clear knowledge of the best way to get there". Tchoungui (1982) is even more critical in her assessment of the policy of official language bilingualism. She writes,
Although English and French are considered to be equal in status as per the new Constitution, French has a de facto dominance over English in the areas of administration, education and the media. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that French influence as expressed in language, culture and political policy prevails in all domains (Wolf 1997: 421). The domination of French is due to the demographic factor, the fact that Francophones have continued to occupy top ranking positions in government and the civil service, and also because there is no effective language policy that guarantees the rights of minorities. More recently, Anglophones have criticized and even challenged the unfair implementation of the policy of official bilingualism. In the Buea Declaration, the All Anglophone Conference (1993), for the first time in history, made public the fact that in spite of the policy of bilingualism, French dominates English at the level of the media (national radio and television):
Such situations contribute to the frustration of Anglophones who believe that the policy of official language bilingualism does in no way protect the English language and culture in Cameroon. In the same way, bilingual education implemented in Cameroon since 1961 in institutions of higher learning plays in favour of French to the detriment of English, given that 80 % of the lectures are delivered in French as against 20 % in English (Tambi 1973, Njeck 1992). This situation further increases the frustration of Anglophones studying in the four bilingual State universities and other institutions of higher learning where this policy is in vogue.
Thus the policy of official language bilingualism has created an Anglophone/Francophone divide in Cameroon that is seen in recent years to constitute a serious problem for the State. Consequently, while being a unifying force, official language bilingualism also constitutes a factor of disunity or conflict. Such a situation has created a sense of cultural identity among Anglophones that arises from their using the same language (English becoming a symbol of in-group solidarity) in an environment perceived as hostile to them both linguistically and socio-politically (Wolf 1997).
The Anglophones have remained very jealous about maintaining their geographical territory within the Cameroon state. Thus rumours that arose in the 90s over the possible idea of creating regions that will witness the annexation of the Anglophone provinces into Francophone neighbouring provinces (South-West and Littoral; North-West and West) so as to form autonomous regions, were out-rightly rejected and combated against. This was perceived by Anglophones as a design on the part of the government to annex the Anglophone provinces and eventually eradicate the Anglophone culture. And so caught between the various alternatives that characterized the political landscape at the time the new Constitution was being prepared in a process referred to as 'grand débat', Anglophones had no other alternative but to accept the mid way compromise of partitioning the country into ten autonomous regions.
It is also important to note that the presence of two official languages in Cameroon has imposed two distinct educational subsystems, a situation that poses problems that call for specific responses. In the Francophone subsystem, English is a compulsory subject up to the end of secondary education. This is not the case with French in the Anglophone subsystem, where it is compulsory only up to the GCE Ordinary Level, the last two years of secondary education being excluded. This means that the Francophone student is generally more prepared to affront bilingual education at the university than his Anglophone counterpart, given that he learns the second official language at secondary school for a longer period of time.
In all, the implementation of the policy of official language bilingualism betrays total absence of language planning. Very little is done in the domain of corpus planning and almost nothing is done in the area of language policy evaluation. In spite of the awareness that both English and French are fast growing to cope with the realities of a multilingual landscape, no serious attempts are made to develop these languages. Work on lexical standardization of Cameroon English and Cameroon French is seriously lagging behind due to lack of institutional support. Such support is obviously necessary for the promotion of the two official languages.
5.2 The Case of Indigenous and Foreign Languages
In spite of the relative silence on the part of the State as regards indigenous languages, experimental projects in the area of teaching and research have long been carried out through private initiative with the implicit approval of government authorities. Such initiatives are observed through the action of SIL-Cameroon, PROPELCA, CABTAL, NACALCO, etc. Unfortunately, indigenous languages continue to be completely absent from the school curriculum in spite of the fact that "the early use of the mother tongue in education has significant long term benefits with respect to maximising the development of the intellectual potential of the child" (Chumbow 1996: 5). Unfortunately, the teaching of indigenous languages, as proposed by PROPELCA, does not always meet with the approval of the population. Studies reveal that parents have a negative attitude towards the use of indigenous languages as a means of instruction (Tadadjeu 1990: 126).
Experience has shown that most parents in Cameroon seem to be generally hostile towards the introduction of early childhood education in the indigenous languages. Several parents send their children to nursery schools as early as the age of three, where the language of communication is English or French. It is obvious that parents who expose their children at an early age to the official language will be totally against the introduction of indigenous languages in the early years of primary education. Such unfavourable attitudes do not augur well for the introduction of indigenous languages in the school system. The nursery schools, it should be noted, very often follow foreign models of education in terms of pedagogic and cultural material used. This attitude ties up with the view that West African countries formerly colonised by the French are still largely linguistically and culturally dependent, a dependency attitude that has dangerously impeded the growth of their indigenous languages (Adegbija 2000: 84). Thus, Cameroon, unlike some other Sub-Saharan African countries, where the indigenous languages are used as the medium of education in the first three years of primary education, still uses exclusively the two official foreign languages at all levels of education. In view of this situation, attitudes towards the official languages are positive, whereas they are negative towards the indigenous languages. Adegbija (2000: 84) writes:
Such negative attitudes are responsible for the continuous marginalization of indigenous languages, considered as inappropriate languages for instruction in Cameroon.
It is however important not to undermine the risk of advocating a multilingual education policy in Cameroon at the present time when the educational budget is very tight, and often does not permit the Cameroonian child to have the barest minimum in terms of didactic material, well adapted teaching methodology, school equipment, teachers, etc. Until recently, the government was under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to freeze the recruitment of primary school teachers for close to a period of ten years. The outcome is that many classrooms lack teachers, and so most of the children receive little or no education at all. If the economy cannot sustain a school system that operates in one of the two official languages, could it possibly sustain the introduction of an indigenous language in the junior classes of primary education? The introduction of mother tongue education in Cameroon, while being practically feasible, may not be economically realistic for a country in which many of its primary school teachers are presently paid through World Bank funding. By using exclusively English and French in education as well as in official day-to-day interaction and functions in Cameroon, many of the indigenous people remain largely ignorant and unable to participate in crucial national issues. This means that the functioning of the State remains a largely elitist affair, since no adult education program is operational.
This notwithstanding, the use of indigenous languages is promoted at the level of the official media. This is the case of the ten provincial radio stations which encourage the promotion of languages widely spoken in each province. The time allocated for radio broadcast in indigenous languages varies from one province to the other. Whereas the Far North provincial radio station in Maroua comes first with 27.36 % of broadcast time given to indigenous languages, the North-West provincial station in Bamenda comes last with barely 4.17 % of broadcast time for indigenous languages (for more details see Nga Minkala 1993). Such disparity in the time allotted to national languages points to the fact that each provincial radio station determines its own language policy in the area of radio broadcast. This situation reveals that the implementation of language policy at the audio-visual level lacks coherence, and depends on the whims of station managers. On the whole audio-visual communication takes place predominantly in English and French, a situation that further reveals that an important component of the population that constitutes the socio-economic force of the nation is marginalized.
As regards the teaching and promotion of foreign languages, this in most cases is limited to the French-speaking sector of the country. Apart from Latin which is taught in both English-speaking and French-speaking seminaries, Spanish and German (the two widely promoted foreign languages) are taught only within the French-speaking system of education. They are introduced in Francophone secondary schools in Quatrième (Form 3), the student given the possibility to choose one of the two languages. In the English-speaking system of education, these languages are completely absent. Thus the Anglophone student goes through secondary education without having the opportunity to learn a single foreign language. Consequently, Anglophone students hardly offer Spanish and German as majors at the university, since they lack previously acquired fundamental knowledge in these languages. The case of Arabic is even more pathetic, given its complete absence from the formal school system. In a country where the Muslim community is relatively high, one should have expected Arabic to be taught as a foreign language in secondary schools and as a major in the universities. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the University of Yaounde I, for instance, Arabic was only introduced recently in 1995 as a course (personal communication from my colleague Etienne Dassi).
5.3 What Language Policy for Cameroon?
Since independence, the choice of a national language(s) has been problematic. Although the government seems to have dismissed the issue altogether, for fear of language conflict likely to threaten national unity, some leading intellectuals, educationalists and linguists have been more than ever preoccupied with the national language problem. Fonlon (1963) favors a language policy that gives priority to early bilingualism whereby the two official languages will be introduced in the early years of primary education when the child can learn faster and more easily. Unfortunately, his model does not give any room to indigenous languages probably because he was very concerned with the unity of the State at the time. Ngijol (1964) advocates the adoption of a single national language in Cameroon for communication, education, literacy and the promotion of national cultural identity. Bot Ba Njok (1966) is in favor of a scenario whereby the country will be divided into linguistic zones, with one language chosen for each zone. Though practical, this proposal could meet with serious difficulties in some regions where the choice of a dominant language is difficult to resolve.
Like Ngijol (1964), Todd (1983) also believes in the idea of choosing a single national language for Cameroon. In her opinion, CPE can effectively play the role of national language not just because it is structurally close to the vernaculars but also because it is the only language in Cameroon which is not associated with a particular tribe, region or religion, or with a specific colonial government (Todd 1983: 169). Thus its neutrality is seen as a strong unifying factor, since it is clearly a 'no man's language'. This argument is however contested by those who hold that given the long association of Pidgin English to the English language and the fact that its lexicon is made up of a high proportion of words of English origin, its neutrality is questionable. Nevertheless, given that it is a widely spoken language in Cameroon and cuts across linguistic boundaries, it can be conveniently used for education, Todd (1983: 169) argues:
Since CPE is perceived as a Cameroon language, it can conveniently play this role without much difficulty. Furthermore, the cost of standardization will be minimal, given that some written material already exists in the language. In spite of such advantages, political authorities in present day Cameroon are reluctant to encourage the use of CPE.
Tadadjeu (1975) advocates a trilingual language policy model whereby English, French and indigenous languages are encouraged not only in education but also in other domains. According to Tabi Manga (2000: 181), Tadadjeu's extensive trilingualism approach is the first significant language-planning model for Cameroon. Following this model, the average Cameroonian should be able to communicate in at least three languages: a Cameroonian indigenous language (preferably his mother tongue), his first official language (English for Anglophones and French for Francophones), and a language of wider communication or second official language. This model is quite realistic for the Cameroonian situation, as long as mother-tongue literacy programs are encouraged.
Tabi Manga's (2000: 184f.) 'quadrilingualism' language planning model takes into consideration four levels of language: mother tongues, community languages, languages for wider communication and international languages. He proposes that a functional status be given to the following six languages of wider communication in Cameroon: Fulfulde, Beti-Fang, Duala, Basaa, Fe'fe'e and Mungaka. In spite of its apparent advantages, especially as regards the use of mother tongue in the early years of primary education, this model is unnecessarily complex and thus complicated to implement.
It is our opinion that a language policy model built around Tadadjeu's extensive trilingual approach is the first comprehensive language policy proposed by a linguist for the country. Thus apart from introducing mother tongue education in the early years of primary school, some major indigenous languages or languages of wider communication could be introduced in the secondary schools and universities as optional courses. Here, languages such as Cameroon Pidgin English, Duala, Basaa, Ewondo, Bulu, Fulfulde and Hausa will certainly play a leading role. We equally believe that Spanish, German and Arabic should be promoted as foreign languages for English-speaking and French-speaking Cameroonians alike. In fact, what Cameroon badly needs is a comprehensive language policy that will promote the two official languages, indigenous languages and foreign languages at various levels of society. Although scholars have been extremely critical of the language policy so far implemented in the country, efforts carried out in this regard are somewhat commendable when various variables are taken into consideration.
During the colonial period, language policies conceived and implemented by the colonialists favoured the development of European foreign languages to the detriment of indigenous languages. Although the Germans seemed to be originally less preoccupied with the issue, they eventually used administrative pressure to ensure that the use of German was effective in the school system. For the British, the policy of Indirect Rule encouraged the spread of vernacular schools where education was carried out in the indigenous languages in the early years of primary education. However, English was gradually made to replace indigenous languages as a medium of instruction. As for the French administration, the institution of the policy of Assimilation from the very unset meant that the educational system was to be centred around French and nothing but French. Thus the French used all the coercive means at their disposal to get rid of indigenous languages.
At Reunification, the 'threat' of indigenous languages was completely gone, as English and French remained the uncontested languages of education in British Cameroon and French Cameroon respectively. However, the real tragedy is that the Cameroon government lacked the necessary insight to put in place a language policy that could cater for the country's multilingual and multicultural interests. Instead, it continued to sheepishly follow the colonial policies, though with a measure of linguistic liberalism (Tabi Manga 2000). Presently, what appears to be a language policy for the country is hardly clearly defined, in spite of the expressed desire to promote English-French bilingualism and protect the indigenous languages (1996 Constitution). Because of the apparent vagueness in language policy conception and implementation, the Cameroonian authorities will do justice to their country if issues of language policy and language planning were given some serious thought and clearly articulated. It would be mistaken to allow issues of language policy solely in the hands of the government, as is the case in most Sub-Saharan African countries. The concerted efforts and collaboration of various actors such as the government, local councils, local language committees, linguists, educational experts, local elite, NGOs and other organs working on language development and research in Cameroon is certainly most welcome.
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